The hallucinatory head-trip of "A Scanner Darkly"

by Eric Melin on July 14, 2006

in Print Reviews

“Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” are both terrific movies, but neither of those Philip K. Dick movie adaptations so accurately approximate the unique head trip that it is to actually read one of the revered science-fiction author’s books as much as Richard Linklater’s new animated film “A Scanner Darkly.” Based on a partly autobiographical 1977 novel, it has a loose, hallucinatory grip on reality and mines the same paranoiac, unmotivated territory that goes hand-in-hand with excessive drug use.

The narrative uncertainty does not end with hazy points-of-view. Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock”) filmed the movie digitally and then used the same rotoscopic animation technique that he did on his stream-of-consciousness/annoying armchair philosophy film, 2001’s “Waking Life.” Again, the frame has been drawn on right over the performance of the actors, forcing things that we take for granted– like subtle shading and color– into a rigidness that is strangely disorienting. At the same time, characters’ drug-induced visions are constantly flowing out of their minds and on to the screen from multiple sources. It is a perfect choice for a story that questions the very notions of identity and reality.

Got so high, scratched til I bled.

Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) is a twitchy mess, covered in bugs that won’t go away. He can’t brush them off, and when he washes them down the drain in the shower, they just come right back the moment he steps out. The insects are with him when he drives over to his friends’ house. This is how we are introduced to a future seven years from now, where a large amount of the U.S. population is addicted to an illegal drug called Substance D. Although Freck and his buddies that hang out at the Orange County drug pad of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) do not seem to do much of anything other than have meaningless repetitive conversations, there is something more sinister at work.

Arctor moonlights secretly as Fred, an undercover narcotics agent whose true identity is kept anonymous. Like the other officers, he is protected by a scramble suit, an ever-changing rotation of identities that flash on and off his figure so quickly that no one can grasp any distinctness at all. The scramble suit itself is an amazing visualization of a wild concept that could only have been done convincingly with animation. Perhaps it was his undercover research, or maybe it was an innate personal yearning for somehing different, but Arctor/Fred is addcited to Substance D. His mind is already fractured into these two personalities, when Fred is assigned to put surveillance on a suspected drug ring at Arctor’s house. Sound confusing? It is.

It is with mind-bending ambiguity that Linklater dances around the issue of whether Arctor is aware that he is spying on himself at all. In typical Dick fashion, there is an absurd scene where Arctor/Fred watches the events at his house unfold on a series of surveillance screens at work, unbeknownst to his drugged-out pals Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Their downward spiral is chronicled, for sure, but the joyous highs and confusing communication breakdowns that happen between drug users is also played for laughs. Downey and Harrelson’s only-too-public past run-ins with the law only add to the feeling of authenticity in these scenes, but one has to wonder whether the idea that their actions would be animated later caused them to ratchet up the outrageousness factor.

Big Brother 37: The Drug Years

Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) seems to be the person the police are concentrating their investigation on, and in addition to being a well-known drug dealer, she is also Arctor’s girlfriend. She is averse to any human touch, a symptom that drives Arctor mad. Like most of the drug-addled characters in “A Scanner Darkly,” this causes Arctor to have some serious moral lapses that only lead to more confusion and mistaken identities.

There are socio-political statements at work as well, as it seems that Substance D may have origins within a powerful organization. There is no cure without a disease, and there are no policemen without criminals after all. These are only two dualities that are highlighted in a screenplay, adapted by Linklater, that’s equally as fragmented. Lazily alternating between freewheeling heights and pathetic lows, the story takes a hopeful, if somewhat clumsy, turn at the end as Arctor/Fred’s mind splits wide open and his life changes dramatically.

A couple of scenes towards the end seem like outward plot explanations that were forced uncomfortably into the mouths of characters, but an emotional dedication abridged from the book at the end of “A Scanner Darkly,” brings a much-needed personal element back into the film. Whatever the ravages of hardcore drug use, this film manages to capture a wide and fairly unjudgmental net over the ones caught up in the abuse. And visually, it may be the movie to most accurately depict its abusers’ state-of-mind.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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